Saturday, 6 December 2008

pulling up the weeds

The Impostor
by Damon Galgut

I went to Cape Town a few years ago to film a commercial and came face to face with the 'new South Africa' almost immediately. I walked from my hotel towards the marina area where restaurants and shops jostled for space amongst the bobbing masts of yachts. On my way there I saw figures hunched beneath shipping containers and gathered around small drum fires. The next morning I saw these same figures by the roadside, waiting patiently for vans and trucks to stop and pick them up. They were men who had come in from rural areas looking for labouring work and each day from dawn they would wait there and hope to be picked up. All around Cape Town you could see the cranes which were building the new apartment blocks and offices which were the only prospect of employment for these men. In Damon Galgut's powerful new novel the juxtaposition of old and new is made all too clear, but also the meeting of Past with Present (and Future), Nature with Man and, within it's uniquely South African context, black with white. As the capital letters indicate it is a novel filled with metaphor and the kind of symbolic writing more commonly found in the short story. Although only 250 (small) pages long it crams so much in I found it one of the most satisfying reads of the year.

Picking up on my own experience of the construction of South Africa's future we meet two brothers Adam and Gavin Napier. Adam, usually the stable, dependable one has seen a change in his fortunes, replaced at work by a younger black colleague and drifting aimlessly whilst his brother has become a successful property developer for whom only the cheapest fittings will do. Adam is offered the opportunity to stay in his brother's place in the country, an almost derelict house with a tin roof, in order to pursue a dream from his youth; to write poetry. Choked by tough old weeds (which he is ordered to remove by the local Mayor) this is far from a country retreat, until recently it was literally the end of the road, and it isn't long before the isolation begins to take its toll.

'On that first day, when he'd arrived, he'd felt time flowing in through the front door behind him. He'd brought time back into the house. But now he could feel a different time - old time, dead time - trapped inside, unable to pass back out, into the current. It had become shaped to the rooms, looping back on itself, piling up in compacted layers so dense and heavy that they were almost substantial. It didn't seem implausible that people or actions from long ago might be here, very close to him.'

This makes tangible the major theme of ever-present history. His one neighbour is a man with a huge secret in his past and Adam himself is soon confronted by his own when he hears his cruel nickname, 'Nappy', being called out ('It is astounding how much history can be stored up in two syllables'). The man calling to him, Channing, purports to be an old school friend although Adam has no recollection of him whatsoever. First through embarrassment and then through the high regard he is clearly held in, he keeps up his pretence of recognition and finds himself being welcomed into Channing's life, his new-found good fortune. Away from the arrid wilderness of the karoo Channing presides over a verdant paradise, an improbable micro-climate in the valley of a mountain developed by his father to be a game park. He lives there with his coloured wife, Baby, '...an emblematic female figure, seen against the backdrop of a primal, primitive garden. All of it is very biblical', a point only reinforced by the arrival into this garden of Adam (Galgut's symbols aren't always subtle). He hopes that this will be the right enviroment for nurturing his poetic impulses; he literally follows the course of all the surrounding life to its wellspring and feels his writer's block lifting but it is the increasing number of encounters with Baby, the 'amoral Beauty', that feed his creativity. Channing seems to be quite happy to push them together whilst he gets on with his business, the uneasy relationships between all three of them being tested all the time by this proximity.

When back in the karoo he is faced by those ever present weeds in the garden. Galgut loads them with significance, making it a Sisyphean task, even the water he uses to soften the ground around them to aid his labour works against him. New green shoots start to appear and as he pulls one up he realises it is 'months away from becoming the tough, thorny adversary he’s been dealing with. But it will: the future is encoded in its cells. Generations of seeds are lying dormant under the surface, waiting for his labours to release them. The very means of clearing the yard is what will fill it again.'

This kind of metaphysical enquiry and his own indignation at the behaviour of others around him distracts Adam from his own moral failings as he gets drawn deeper and deeper into Channing's own schemes, where the future is to be built on the foundations of revenge for his past. There is almost the air of a thriller about the plotting, albeit one with moral ambiguity and philosophical musings. This helps keep the energy up in a book whose themes could have become leaden. Galgut gives one the sense that whilst the situation in South Africa isn't hopeless it is one in which the various participants are starting some way apart. Truth and Reconciliation, two more capitalised words, were the foundation of South Africa's new beginning, and still it seems an important part of its future. Galgut has placed himself at the forefront of articulating that process and this book should cement his status as the most exciting writer of his generation.


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